- *No Site Warnings Apply
- Challenge Response
Tony sighed as he sat heavily on the couch, then groaned when his phone started ringing over on the kitchen counter. Tali had been in high toddler form that evening, and bedtime had somehow been more draining for Tony than any other part of their day. It was one of the great paradoxes of parenting he’d discovered. He could simultaneously have so much love for another little human, and at the same time so much frustration brought on by trying to accomplish simple everyday tasks.
The phone kept ringing, and Tony grudgingly levered himself up to go grab it. Very few people had his phone number these days, and he figured if one of them was calling, it was important. A quick glance at the caller ID had him sighing. It was Dwayne Pride. Tony knew he had fallen out of regular contact with his friend the past couple weeks and felt bad about it. He picked up the phone and hit the green button on the screen.
“DiNozzo. It’s been a while. How are you?”
They’d kept in touch after Tony had gone down to New Orleans to assist on that case on the carrier. He’d discovered Dwayne Pride was a kind man who looked out for his team, despite being a zealous investigator. Maybe seeing work relationships that weren’t hopelessly dysfunctional and sometimes outright abusive should have been a clue for Tony, but his head wasn’t in the right place at that time in his life.
Since finding out he was a father and becoming Tali’s primary caregiver, Tony had been leaning on his friend for parenting advice and a sympathetic ear. They usually emailed and talked on the phone a couple times a week, so Tony wasn’t surprised that Pride was checking in after he’d gotten too busy to respond.
Tony let out a sigh, trying to decide how to answer Pride’s question without sounding as stressed and overwhelmed as he was feeling. It was probably a lost cause. Pride always seemed to know when Tony was trying to deflect anyway.
“Things have been tough around here, actually. I’m sorry I haven’t called you back,” Tony admitted.
“Hey, no sweat. You okay? Tali doing okay?”
“Tali’s fine. Well, she’s been a bit of a handful lately, but it’s not really her fault. Senior took off, and I think she’s lashing out in response to yet another change in her life. Either that, or it’s just one of those phases toddlers go through. I feel like there’s always a phase, you know? This too shall pass and all that. That’s probably from a movie. That sounds like it’s from a movie, right? Lord of the Rings maybe? Maybe not.”
“Whoa, Tony. Hold up. There’s a lot to unpack there.” Pride interrupted his rambling. “What happened to Senior?”
Tony blew out a breath, trying to dispel the emotion that was suddenly choking him up. He hadn’t thought he could be hurt by his father more than he already had been in his life, but that was proving to be a lie he’d told himself.
“He left. Made friends with some wealthy widow visiting Paris on a European cruise and took off to go make her his latest ex-wife. He gave me some speech about how he deserved to find good things in life. I guess Tali and I weren’t what he was looking for. I think he and his woman were going to Canada? I didn’t really pay attention to that part.”
“Wow. I’m sorry,” Dwayne said with sincerity in his voice.
At least it wasn’t pity. Tony didn’t want pity from a man he respected so much and hopefully respected him in return. After a protracted moment of silence, Pride spoke again.
“So Tali isn’t handling his absence well?”
Tony was glad Pride had asked about Tali and not him. It was so much easier to worry about her than think too hard about his own emotions over the whole situation. Tony had come to lean on Dwayne for a lot of parenting advice over the last few months, and it was easy to fall back on that habit.
“She’s doing okay. I don’t think she really understands what has happened. All she knows is that someone who was in her life every day is gone now, so her routine has changed. She’s a little cranky about it and pushing some boundaries with me, but considering all the change in her life the past few months, she’s handling this new situation remarkably well.”
“Kids are resilient, but I’m sure she’s doing fine with such a great father looking out for her.”
Tony let out an awkward laugh and rubbed a hand over the back of his neck.
“I feel like I’m floundering all the time, but thanks, I guess.”
Tony straightened from where he’d been leaning against the counter and started moving around the kitchen, cleaning up a few stray dishes.
“I know I’ve said this before, but we all do, you know? No parent ever feels like they know what they’re doing,” Dwayne pointed out.
“Yeah, yeah,” Tony replied as he put a couple sippy cups in the dishwasher. “You say that, but I have to think you were way more qualified to be a parent when Laurel was born than I am.”
“I really wasn’t. I felt overwhelmed most of the time. Although, I can say that having a partner as committed to parenting as I was helped a lot. But you don’t need a baby mama if you can find yourself some support in other places.”
Tony snorted at Pride’s inelegant wording. Finished in the kitchen, he wandered back to the couch. They’d been fortunate to find a two-bedroom flat to rent near Paris, but Tali’s cot was still set up in Tony’s room. As much as lying in bed right now sounded great, he didn’t want to wake her with his conversation.
“What? Was I supposed to tiptoe around the fact that bitch withheld your daughter from you? I thought we were past that,” Pride questioned.
“Oh, I have nothing against your disparaging the woman who spawned my child as long as you don’t do it in front of her. I haven’t figured out how I’m going to tackle that conversation with Tali yet. Hopefully I have a little time.”
Tony sighed and lay back on the couch. “And really, do we even know that she’s dead? I wouldn’t put it past her to stage this whole thing and abandon her daughter because of some scheme or other. Oh, I’m sorry, maybe ‘mission’ is a better term.”
There was an awkward beat of silence before Dwayne broke into the maudlin thoughts that were threatening to invade Tony’s head.
“I’m sorry I was blind to how bad your situation was there, Tony. I’m glad you’re out though, and I’m so glad you have your daughter.”
“Yeah, Tali is incredible,” Tony agreed softly. “I’m so grateful to have her in my life. It’s nothing like I ever imagined, but it’s perfect, you know?”
“Yeah, I get that.” Dwayne paused before he continued. “Do you really think she might still be alive?”
“Let’s just say that if she ever walked back into my life someday, I wouldn’t be all that surprised. I have no reason to believe she is, but it’s just the sort of shit she would pull. I’ve briefed my custody lawyer about that possibility so we can have a plan in place. It didn’t seem like he thought I was being too paranoid, so maybe it’s not that far-fetched an idea.”
Dwayne cleared his throat. “Since we’re avoiding talking about your father, can I ask you something personal? It’s something I’ve been curious about.”
Tony chuckled. “Go ahead.”
“Did you love her?”
Dwayne had a particular skill for lulling a person into a false sense of security and then hitting them with the tough questions. It was fair though. He and Tony had talked at length one night about a month ago about Pride’s relationship with his ex-wife. Dwayne was an open book to his friends, and Tony appreciated that sort of honesty after his relationships with his coworkers fell apart when he left to take custody of Tali.
“No. We never had that kind of relationship. Honestly, from where I’m sitting now, I’m not sure I’ve ever had that kind of relationship.” Tony paused and shifted so he was lying looking up at the ceiling. “I only made the mistake of sleeping with her once. I wasn’t in a great place mentally and I thought it would make me feel better about…well, I’m not sure what. Anyway, it was a lucky shot, I guess.”
“Yeah, suspiciously lucky if it was just the once,” Pride commented.
Tony sighed. “I can’t live in conspiracy theories all the time. I had my own paternity test done. Besides, it happens to teenagers on prom night all the time, right? I’m just trying to be grateful for what I have now.”
“You’re a better man than me in that case.”
Tony heard a few notes plunked on a piano in the background. Given how the ambient sounds changed, Tony would bet Pride had put his phone on speaker and set it next to him so he could play freely.
“I’m jealous of your piano right now. I’d love to be able to sit down and play for a while,” Tony admitted.
He listened to Pride start a softly lilting song.
“How’s Laurel?” Tony asked.
“She’s good. I think there’s a new boyfriend, but I’m trying not to pry.”
Tony laughed. “At least I’m not there yet. Hopefully that’s a phase of fatherhood that’s a long way off.”
“Laugh it up, my friend. You’ll blink, and Tali will be going to prom with some hot-headed teenager,” Pride ribbed.
Tony just smiled and let the conversation lapse into a comfortable silence that was only filled with the sounds of Dwayne’s music.
“You should come visit so we can play together,” Dwayne said softly after a few moments.
“That’d be nice,” Tony replied sincerely, letting his mind stray to a fantasy that had been growing lately about what it would be like to be with someone like Dwayne Pride.
Tony had been too busy with Tali and all the other life changes becoming a father had brought to think much about dating or a relationship with anyone else, but in this quiet moment, he felt a longing for something like that. It was easy to fit Dwayne into that role in his head because they’d grown quite close through many long conversations and emails. Tony had come to love Dwayne’s laid-back approach to life that balanced his personality with the intensity and intelligence he brought to his job.
Dwayne’s voice broke through Tony’s thoughts. “How long are you planning to stay in Paris anyway? Have you changed your plans considering the recent turn of events?”
Tony shrugged on autopilot, though Pride couldn’t see that through the phone.
“I don’t know. When I first left, the idea was to go to Israel to get custody finalized, then come to Paris. Spend some time getting to know my daughter in a beautiful city. I always figured I’d find a place to settle down before she had to start school, but I didn’t actually think much about my timeline for that.”
“Well, my door’s always open if you want to spend some time down here. I know you probably don’t want to uproot Tali’s life too often, but even if you don’t stay, you’d have a friendly face for some support if you want it,” Dwayne offered.
Tony didn’t realize how much he’d needed to hear that until the relief washed over him. When his father was around, it had felt like they were on some adventure. A long vacation. The truth was he was starting to feel very isolated, and he knew he needed to find somewhere to settle down and establish a life soon. Tali was his everything now, but he wouldn’t be a good parent if he were her everyone. He wanted her to have more people in her life who cared about her and could encourage her as she grew.
He’d thought his father would be the start of that, but clearly that wasn’t true. He should’ve seen that coming and was still pretty angry at himself than he hadn’t. He didn’t really know what his next step was, but taking Pride up on his offer might be a good start. He cleared his throat before answering and hoped his tumultuous emotions weren’t evident in his voice.
“That sounds really good. I’d like to take you up on that.”
Tony heard Dwayne stop playing and bring his phone back to his ear. “Good. I’d love to have you both. You just let me know when you want to come, I’ll have a room made up for y’all.”
“Thanks. That means a lot,” Tony replied. “I’ll keep in touch on our plans.”
“Keep in touch in general, okay? You don’t need to do this alone.”
“Okay,” Tony acknowledged.
“Okay,” Dwayne repeated. “Now, isn’t it late there? You should get some sleep while you can. I know how kids are.”
Tony let out a long breath and felt the fatigue of the day setting in. “Yeah, you’re probably right.”
“Goodnight, Tony. And seriously, don’t be a stranger. I really like our talks.”
“If by talks, you mean my panicked requests for parenting advice, then I think you have odd taste,” Tony snarked. “I’m definitely getting more out of the deal than you are.”
“Believe me, I get plenty out of this relationship. You’re smart and funny and very easy to talk to. I wouldn’t mind being able to do more of that in person,” Dwayne said. “I’d really love to meet that little girl of yours too. The holidays are coming up, and it would be fun to have a little one around to celebrate with.”
Tony was surprised by the honest admission and sincerity in Dwayne’s voice. Maybe his growing attraction wasn’t all one sided. That was probably too much to hope for at this point, but if hope and a voice on the other end of the phone had gotten him this far, it couldn’t hurt to keep hanging onto that a little longer.
“I already said we’d come visit. No need to twist my arm,” Tony replied with a chuckle.
Dwayne’s answering smile could be heard in his voice. “Okay, good. I’ll see you soon, Tony.”
“Yeah, see you soon,” Tony said, then more softly, “Goodnight.”
They hung up and Tony sighed and closed his eyes. His life had been crazy lately, but at least he knew his next move. Maybe with a little physical distance from the latest pile of emotional rubble left in his father’s wake, he could figure out what kind of future he wanted for himself and Tali.
– – – – –
Tony stirred the pot that was bubbling away on the stove. It was late, but he figured Dwayne would appreciate a hot meal when he finally finished work. His NCIS team had pulled a case a couple days ago, and they’d been working long hours to get it solved since then. They’d finally arrested their perp that afternoon. When they eventually made it back to the office, Dwayne had stopped in the living area of the building where Tony was getting Tali ready for bed to bid her goodnight. He’d been out in the office area for the last couple hours finishing the paperwork and tying up any loose ends.
Tony and Tali had been staying with Pride for a week now, and Dwayne had been pretty strict about keeping the work areas closed off when they had a case so Tali wasn’t ever accidentally exposed to anything inappropriate. They’d stayed a couple more weeks in Paris before making their way to New Orleans, since Tony still had a little time left on their monthly rented flat. He’d tried to stay positive and had taken Tali to do some sightseeing. They’d found a few nice parks when the weather was good.
In the end, saying goodbye to Paris hadn’t been difficult for either of them. Tali had handled the travel relatively well, and they’d been enjoying their time in New Orleans. They’d already explored some of the city’s sites in the cooler winter weather.
Tali and Dwayne had formed an instant connection. Well, about as close to instant as Tali ever got. She was understandably shy and wary of new people as well as very attached to Tony, who was the only constant in her life the last several months. However, it hadn’t taken but a couple hours after meeting for Dwayne’s kindness and patience to draw Tali out of her shell. Watching Dwayne do silly little things to get that adorable toddler giggle out of her was Tony’s new favorite pastime.
The fact that Tali adored Dwayne made it easy to stay and had Tony thinking about what it might be like to make New Orleans their home. Tony didn’t quite know what he’d do with himself, but it was a big enough city he could find something. He wasn’t going to rush into a new career anytime soon anyway. He was content for now to be Tali’s dad, and he wanted his next job to be the right fit.
“The fantastic smells coming from this kitchen are good motivation to get reports done,” Dwayne startled Tony out of his thoughts.
Tony turned away from the pot with a smile. “I’m glad it smells good. Figured you might be hungry after your day. There’s enough for the team if they’re still around too.”
“I sent them home a while ago,” Dwayne said as he walked over to take a look in the pot on the stove. “It might have been part of my devious plan to keep all your cooking for myself, but I’ll never tell.”
Dwayne grabbed a spoon and dipped it in the soup. Tony watched his lips at he blew across it for a moment before tasting it.
He hummed appreciatively. “Coubion? I didn’t know you could cook creole.”
“My first try,” Tony explained. “I perfected my roux in France, and the rest isn’t that dissimilar to Italian gravy. Tali and I found some fresh red snapper at the market today, so I wanted to make something special with it.”
“You did great. I can’t wait to dig in,” Dwayne praised.
Tony dished them each a bowl and they settled at the table with some wine Dwayne poured. They ate the first few bites in comfortable silence.
“My mama used to make this for us after Christmas Eve mass,” Dwayne commented. “Don’t tell her, but yours is better.”
Tony chuckled, but then sighed at the thought of his own Christmas Eve memories.
“We weren’t really Christmas Eve mass people. There was too much partying to be done that time of year to leave room for church or family. My dad couldn’t stand to let any opportunity for being seen and making connections go, even at the holidays. I thought this year might be different, that he’d finally want to spend the holidays with his family.
“You know, I’d do anything to protect Tali and give her the life she deserves. It took finally having a reason other than myself to leave the abusive mess that NCIS had become. Why did it take even longer for me to realize my father isn’t ever going to be someone I can depend on?”
Tony hadn’t intended to spend the evening airing his issues with Dwayne, but the pressure and emotion associated with the holiday season was pushing at him.
Dwayne looked across the table at Tony. “Probably because you wanted to be able to depend on him. Your life changed very suddenly. It wasn’t outside of the realm of possibility to think he might change this time too. I know you probably think you were foolish for opening yourself up to him again, but wanting a family for Tali isn’t foolish. Any blame in this situation lies squarely on Senior.”
Tony breathed through the complex emotions, not wanting them to spill over into something he couldn’t control. Dwayne was right though. Tony hadn’t done anything wrong.
“We’ve never talked about it, but I’m sorry I didn’t see how toxic things had become for you at work,” Dwayne said softly. “Gibbs and I were friends at a distance, and I never really bothered to see how his personal issues and leadership failures might be creating a bad working environment for you.”
Tony shrugged. “It wasn’t your job to look out for me. I don’t resent your friendship with Gibbs, if that’s what you’re worried about.”
“That’s the thing though. You and I worked together. I know how brilliant you are, and I know how skilled you are at working with people. Still, I bought into everything Gibbs ever said about you and never once called him on his bullshit,” Dwayne paused and stirred his spoon around his bowl a bit before continuing. “I feel guilty that I didn’t recognize that my old friend needed to get some sense knocked into him and his head back on straight, and I feel guilty that my new friend was hurt by his actions.”
“Don’t feel guilty. You didn’t do anything wrong, and you didn’t have any skin in the game,” Tony assured. “I honestly just wanted to make you some good food after a long day, not have an emotional bloodletting over dinner.”
“It’s really okay,” Dwayne reassured him, “and I wouldn’t mind that, you know.”
When Tony just gave him a quizzical look, he explained.
“I wouldn’t mind having skin in the game with you.”
Tony couldn’t stop himself from smiling and waggling his eyebrows suggestively at the comment.
Dwayne laughed. “Okay, that sounded like a euphemism, but it wasn’t. Well, it sort of was. Damn, I’m trying to be serious here and figure out the right way to say what I want to say.”
Tony felt a little off-kilter at the spark of hope that suddenly lit in his chest. He hadn’t really entertained the idea that Dwayne might actually want something more than friendship with him. In an effort to relieve some of the tension, he stood and grabbed their bowls, taking them to the sink to be washed.
“Your team off for the holidays?” Tony changed the subject when the silence stretched just to the point of awkward.
Dwayne stood and came to lean a hip against the counter where Tony was just starting to wash the dishes.
“We’re always on call. We’ll make it work if something comes up. You knew that though,” Dwayne observed.
Tony looked up from the sink and gave Dwayne a sheepish smile. “Yeah, things got very real in here. Just giving you an out if you wanted one.”
“I don’t, Tony,” Dwayne said moving closer. He was looking intently at Tony.
Tony grabbed a towel and dried his hands before crossing his arms and leaning back against the counter.
“Maybe you should. I’m still kind of a mess on top of fumbling my way through surprise fatherhood.”
“I’m coming in with eyes open. We’ve been friends a long while now, and the past few months we’ve gotten to know each other even better. I’ve got my own issues. We’ll figure it out as we go,” Dwayne replied with a confidence that was, frankly, sexy as hell.
Tony was struggling a bit with how easy Dwayne was making this for him. He knew he was in a place where if he allowed himself, he’d fall hard and fast. He’d had enough upheaval in his life recently to know that he should make sure they’d talked through all the angles before taking any real steps toward what was simmering between them.
“What about Tali? She’s part of my deal now,” he reminded him.
Dwayne stepped in front of Tony, invading his space in way that was more intimate than he’d allowed before now. He didn’t make a move to touch him, though it was obvious to Tony that he wanted to.
“I’d be involved in her life as much or little as you want. You make the call on that, but I know you’re a package deal. I have no hesitations about giving her time, love, and safety every child deserves.”
“An NCIS office isn’t a home for a small child,” Tony countered.
“So find your own place and ask me to move in in six months when the sex is still so hot we know it’s not just a fluke, and you’re tired of me leaving a duffle bag on your bedroom floor every weekend.”
Tony uncrossed his arms and moved his hands to Dwayne’s hips. “You’re not normally this perfect right? I don’t know if I could deal with that all the time.”
Dwayne’s face broke into a warm smile with a laugh. “I’m definitely almost never perfect. Don’t worry.”
Tony looked down at Dwayne’s lips. “Okay, good,” he murmured before leaning in to kiss them.
Dwayne’s arms went around Tony’s waist and the kiss turned intense. A rush of warmth traveled Tony’s body immediately, and he pressed closer as they moved tongues and lips together. Kissing Dwayne was drugging, and Tony was a little stunned when they broke for air minutes later.
Dwayne hugged him close and Tony closed his eyes and tried to regain his equilibrium.
“Wow,” Tony finally said.
“Yeah,” Dwayne agreed. He moved his head just enough from where they were pressed together to place a soft kiss under Tony’s jaw. Oddly enough, that small gesture felt more intense than almost anything they’d done so far.
“Just so you know, I’ve been attracted to you for a long time,” Dwayne spoke softly. “I tried not to let that influence our friendship until now, but I think the timing might finally be right.”
Tony laughed lightly. “If that kiss was anything to go by, your patience is about to be spectacularly rewarded.”
Dwayne kissed him hard then, and they lost a few moments to each other before they pulled apart just enough to speak.
“Do you want to head upstairs?” Dwayne asked.
Tony put on a mock pout. “But I made you pecan pie for dessert.”
“In case you don’t know this yet, one of the great joys in life is eating pie for breakfast.”
“Dammit,” Tony replied with a frown.
“What?” Dwayne looked understandably confused.
“Pie for breakfast? You really are too perfect. This will never work,” Tony said, trying and mostly failing to keep his expression straight as he did.
Dwayne tipped his head back and laughed loud before Tony shushed him and pulled him down into another kiss. They only stopped long enough to make their way to the master bedroom. Once they were inside with the door closed behind them, Tony wasted no time in pulling Dwayne to him again. They kissed again, this time hands roaming and grabbing, ramping up Tony’s desire.
“Please, take your clothes off already,” Tony urged between panted breaths when they finally broke for air.
Dwayne smiled and undressed quickly. Tony did the same. Neither of them were at a point in life where they demurred when it came to getting naked, and Tony was immediately grateful when he saw all the skin on display. Dwayne had a leanly muscled body and was innately comfortable in his masculinity in a way that was deeply attractive.
Tony stared appreciatively as Dwayne got on the bed and laid back. He held out his hand and beckoned for Tony to join him. Tony didn’t hesitate to crawl up the bed until he could lay half on Dwayne and run his fingers over the light dusting of hair on his chest. They kissed again, softer this time.
“What do you want?” Dwayne asked softly.
“Just this,” Tony murmured, trailing his hand down to cup Dwayne’s erection. “Just us, like this.”
“Yes,” Dwayne answered, then moaned softly as Tony stroked up his length.
Dwayne leaned up to kiss Tony, and turned them as he did, covering Tony. All that pressure and heat from another body felt amazing, but the fact that it was Dwayne, whom he trusted and already had such a deep friendship with, made him feel so much more. Tony gasped into their kiss as Dwayne rubbed his cock along Tony’s length.
They moved together like that for minutes that felt longer, their bodies entwined in such a way that it made Tony shiver with the intensity of sensation. He hadn’t had sex with someone else in months and couldn’t even remember the last time he’d felt so much intimacy and closeness with another person.
The emotion of the moment combined with the physical pleasure overwhelmed him quickly, and he was moaning through an intense orgasm before he really knew what was happening. Dwayne was leaning up on his elbows watching Tony when he opened his eyes.
“You’re really gorgeous when you let go,” he complimented.
Tony didn’t have enough brain power to come up with something equally wonderful to say, so he just leaned up into a kiss and reached down to stroke Dwayne with intent. The other man was soon breathing heavily through his own release before collapsing into the mess between them. Dwayne gave a please hum and buried his head in Tony’s neck and they held each other while catching their breath.
After a few moments they moved apart and Dwayne grabbed a towel from the bathroom so they could do a quick cleanup. When that was done they shifted back to lie together on the bed. Dwayne was idly running his fingers up and down the area of Tony’s back he could reach while Tony was draped half across his chest.
“I feel like you gave me an early Christmas present,” Tony murmured into the quiet between them.
Dwayne chuckled softly. “Nah, I’m the one getting spoiled in this arrangement.”
Tony turned his head to place a kiss on the skin beneath his cheek. “Agree to disagree.”
Dwayne moved and shifted them so he was the big spoon. “Is now a good time to admit that I’m a serious cuddler?”
Tony snorted. “I knew you weren’t perfect. How do you even handle that in the heat of summer down here?”
Tony felt Dwayne give a sort of shrug behind him. “I’m just hoping you find a place with air conditioning by then.”
Tony smiled. He could handle that.
Profilers for Christmas is an anonymous crime drama Advent Calendar featuring both art and stories. Additional information about the challenge can be found here.